Higher education socially selective – Report

A nationwide survey by the German Student Welfare Service, or DSW, has found that working-class children are still strongly underrepresented in higher education, with less than a quarter gaining access to university.

Germany has repeatedly been criticised, in the Education at a Glance reports issued by the OECD for its failure to attract more students from less wealthy backgrounds to higher education.

This year’s report does not focus on the topic but the welfare service’s 20th social report, published just a few days after the release of the OECD document, has statistics suggesting a continuation of the trends referred to by the OECD in previous years.

Out of a total student population of 2.5 million, less than a quarter are from a working-class background. Among 100 children in families of academics, 77 go on to higher education on average. By contrast, just 23 children out of 100 from a skilled-labourer background make it to university.

“Access to Germany’s higher education system continues to be socially selective, despite education levels among the population at large having risen,” says DSW President Dieter Timmermann. “In our times, the focal aspects of higher education policy are excellence, elites and autonomy. There is hardly any mention of social justice and equal opportunities.”

Timmermann, formerly a vice-chancellor of Bielefeld University and an education researcher, says the new bachelor degrees have not brought about any changes in the social composition of Germany’s student population.

But the DSW report does suggest that student protests over an excessive workload brought about by the new degrees have had an impact, with the contents of courses now being slightly less compressed. Students currently spend an average of 35 hours a week attending lectures and seminars and teaching themselves programme contents – two hours less than in the 2009 survey.

A total of 61% of students are self-supporting or at least partly self-supporting, spending an average of 7.4 hours a week in part-time jobs. The report notes their share has dropped slightly, which it claims could be due to the abolition of fees at most universities, although it also says the tightly organised bachelor courses provide little scope for part-time jobs.

A quarter of all students are now relying, to varying extents, on federal government support, in accordance with the “Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz” (Bafög) (Federal Training Assistance Act) – the law on student allowances. Another 6% have taken out loans to finance their studies although support is applied for by students from a working-class background.

Timmermann has called on the federal and state governments not to postpone any further a reform of the Bafög law that would benefit more students and raise allowance levels. The government’s advisory council on student support already recommended an increase in January 2012, although politicians have not responded so far.

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